The best gifts for kids are intangible

Sometimes I struggle with what to get my niece for Christmas. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of options at my fingertips. Buying presents for an 8-year-old girl who loves music and art, is still enamored with dolls, is fast becoming enchanted with the sparkle of jewelry and probably knows more about technology than I do is not that tall of a challenge. And should I fall short of ideas, Josie is only too happy to share the list she’s made for Santa.

What gives me pause is my reluctance to contribute to the barrage of toys and gadgets that she will receive, though I say this recalling my own excitement to tear into the presents under our tree when I was growing up (though they were considerably fewer, and simpler, than any Josie has received each year since her first Christmas, when she was more interested in the wrapping paper and boxes strewn about her than their shiny, new contents).

I can appreciate that she is a child and therefore still dazzled by the prospect of new playthings.

But the older she gets, the more I long to gift her with the things that can’t be wrapped and tied with a bow. Though only 8, Josie seems at times to be hovering precariously close to adolescence. The shows she likes to watch, the pop songs she listens to (and, yes, her bedroom walls are plastered with Justin Bieber posters), the flash of her brightly painted fake nails, her occasional sassy comment — sometimes it all has me wondering if her childhood is vanishing in some unconscious race to a finish line she’s not prepared to cross.

Then there are moments when she’s still so angelically sweet or laughably impish that she appears exactly the age she is. But as much as I worry about her growing up too quickly, I worry more about the world around her, and the cruelty and insensitivity that can take its toll on otherwise healthy, vibrant and resilient children. And, of course, there’s the trouble they can get into, succumbing to peer pressure or making poor decisions despite the inoculation of good parenting.

Josie is fortunate to be surrounded by many loving individuals and strong role models, and those influences have definitely rubbed off. She is generally outgoing and generous, loves being helpful — on a recent visit to my house, she voluntarily made my bed — and is prone to surprising bursts of wisdom (when my brother was unduly preoccupied with the opinions of others while pondering an important decision a while back, it was she who reminded him — in less grown-up terms, of course — that he would be sacrificing his own happiness if he made his choice based on what others thought).

And yet I think back to her infant and toddler days and the great ease and trust with which she moved through a new and interesting world, somehow assured not only of her unique place in it but of her right to be appreciated and adored.

It was fascinating for me to see, from her perspective, how children are born with an inherent security in their own worth. Josie was like a star, bright and beguiling and brimming with such curiosity and joy that to be around her was always a gift, reminding us all to be more attuned to the present moment, which packed an endless wonder for her wide, nursling eyes.

When she was about 2 years old, she became captivated by her reflection. Running under the racks of clothes in a store once, she stopped in front of the mirror and gazing at the image before her happily declared: “Me pretty.” My mind jumped forward, thinking of other mirrors and other times when she would stand in front of them, her eyes perhaps critical, her body no longer a marvel worth celebrating but a carefully compartmentalized measure of an impossible beauty ideal.

But then, she was as free-spirited and feisty as ever, whether she was persuading me to dance with her right in the middle of a crowded Shoney’s restaurant in Myrtle Beach or calling a boisterous “Goodnight, Moon” to the luminous sphere that had her transfixed during a nighttime walk and thanking it for its light. … Even her tantrums, beyond the petulance and pouting, were worth noting for the quick and easy way she was able to express her feelings, allow a full emotional release, and then just as rapidly move on to whatever enticed her next.

It’s not that Josie has drastically changed or that time has somehow chipped away at her more exuberant traits.

Yet recalling such moments, I think of the gifts I wish were more easily bestowed, and not just at this time of year: the self-esteem to never doubt her own precious perfection, the confidence to boldly share her talents and abilities, the courage to be true to herself and set her own boundaries, the awareness to accept the validity of her emotions and the wisdom to learn from her mistakes. Whatever life may hold, I want Josie to fully inhabit it, trusting her natural impulse toward joy and knowing that she is always supported and will encounter nothing that isn’t ultimately for her own good.

Last Sunday, I took her to see a play downtown. Afterward, we rode the carousel at the Christmas Village outside City Hall and then browsed the vendors’ stalls, stopping to make a jewelry purchase, of course, as well as to buy a treat for the family dog. When it was time to go home, she decided to skip through the thinning crowds, inviting me to join her. And so I did. We also skipped, hand-in-hand, back to my car, laughing in the blustery cold and singing Christmas carols as we made our way out of the city.

“What was your favorite part of the day?” she asked before we pulled into my mom’s driveway for our weekly family dinner.

Though this question, posed frequently during her younger years after any special outing, was usually intended to highlight a particular moment, I replied: “Spending it with you.”

When Josie echoed that sentiment, I realized that I may not be able to place certain things under the tree, but I can use every moment spent with her as an opportunity to model the gifts I long to impart — and to help keep aflame that wild, magnificent spark with which we arrive in the world.

Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times